Burdened with trying to recreate one of the most beloved films of our time, Disney's 2019 version of The Lion King can't quite outrun the legacy of its predecessor.
When Disney announced that they’d be reimagining The Lion King, there was a mix of excitement and trepidation in the air. Brought to life under the studious eye of Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book, Chef), every frame previously seen in trailers suggested that he’d worked his magic once again. Teamed with an accomplished cast of voice actors comprised of veteran thespians and culture-shifting musical talents, it was easy to be lulled into a false sense of what could go wrong?
Now that Disney is seemingly hellbent on bringing their classic films to a new generation, kids will be experiencing these fables for the first time. A low risk, high reward formula destined to bring the money rolling in year after year, it’s a foregone conclusion that The Lion King will be one of the highest-grossing films of the summer. However, the formula risks producing a rollcall of films that can’t outrun the timelessness of their predecessors, and that’s exactly the trap that Favreau’s latest remake stumbles into.
Throughout the course of the movie, you find yourself accosted by nostalgic visuals. The sweeping grandeur of Pride Rock, the sun rising over the African savanna, herds of zebras and antelopes all congregating. It’s all there and it looks undeniably majestic. However, this is where one of the crucial issues with the film comes in. Where they could’ve gone out of their way to contribute a new batch of iconic moments, Disney became reliant on the comfort of familiar scenes, not unlike a legendary artist middling their way through a greatest hits set.
Like its 1994 forebearer, there’s no denying that this is another feat of technological innovation. Where the original took hand-drawn animation to new heights, 2019’s edition brings photorealism to unforeseen levels. At numerous points throughout its “Circle Of Life” opening sequence, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a computer-generated image rather than one of David Attenborough’s awe-inspiringly detailed Planet Earth documentaries. But as it turns out, the vividness of these renderings comes at a high price. As opposed to the animation allowing the animal kingdom to emote and express themselves, the impenetrability of today’s CGI means that many of its pivotal characters are robbed of their once-winning personalities.
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It’s a mixed bag in both the voice acting and scoring department. There’s no doubt that the decision for James Earl Jones to reprise his role as Pride Rock’s noble leader Mufasa was the right call. As new additions go, Donald Glover’s take on Simba is actually a vast improvement on the occasionally overwrought delivery of Matthew Broderick, while Beyonce brings a newfound gravitas to the role of Nala. No piece of casting is perhaps more ingenious than allowing Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen to recapture the whimsical joy and playfully nihilistic musings of Timon and Pumba. While the latter seems like a role that the amiable Canadian was practically born to play, Eichner gets to make a case for Broadway work and showcase his understated comedic timing.
On the subject of comedians, the addition of Eric Andre and Keegan Michael-Key as two hapless hyenas is a welcome addition, but sadly Chance The Rapper’s fleeting cameo as a bushbaby is a blink and you’ll miss it affair. On the other side of the spectrum, one character who is done a grave disservice in this version is the villainous Scar. Formerly helmed by Jeremy Irons, his portrayal of Mustafa’s misaligned brother and his ascent to power had the sort of devious pomp and circumstance befitting of the story’s Shakespearean origins. But try as he might, the limitations of CGI to convey emotion and the momentous nature of Irons’ performance proves too much for Chiwetel Ejiofor to overcome.
Overseen by Pharrell Williams and with Hans Zimmer returning to contribute new elements to his existing score, the legacy of Elton John and Tim Rice’s seminal compositions is handled with care. But where the onscreen action sticks as stringently as it can to the original, the soundtrack plays a little more fast and loose with the boundaries. In one of the film’s climactic centerpieces, Beyonce’s new offering “Spirit” gives the film a jolt of adrenaline, whereas their decision to incorporate a rendition of The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ is mandela effect-inducing as you strain to remember whether it was actually in the original.
Sired by Hollywood’s wariness to bank on new ideas, 2019’s The Lion King is by no means inherently bad or unenjoyable. When it hits its stride, such as in the visceral and emotional climactic duel between Simba and Scar, the film evokes that same sense of wonderment that you felt as a kid. Yet despite being consistently dazzling from a technical standpoint, it lacks the heart that made its predecessor such a worldwide sensation.